Updated: Feb 15, 2022
Emotions are part of being human. We all have them. But do we understand them fully? Personally speaking, I used to think that emotions are only welcomed when they felt positive. That if I was feeling something other than happiness, that meant something needed to be “fixed”. Take a moment to reflect for yourself. What is your relationship with your own emotions?
Emotions can take on many different forms for individuals. Different ones may arise for different people in similar situations. There may be different levels of emotions certain people feel comfortable sharing. Some folks may have a negative attitude towards showing certain emotions, such as sadness or fear. Perhaps they believe it is only acceptable to show specific types of emotions, such as happiness or excitement. There are countless ways humans can feel, show, and act with their emotions. They are what bring us the most joy in life, while also bringing us the most pain.
In this post, I aim to provide some understanding around what emotions are, what meaning they have for us, and what we can do with them. I will also aim to adjust our perspective of our emotions. Truth be told, emotions are not good or bad. They are neutral. Read that again. Emotions are not good or bad. They are neutral. This is a concept that has stuck with me ever since I learned it. It has completely shifted the way I look at my emotions and reactions that accompany them.
To begin, what even is an emotion? According to the American Psychological Association, emotions are defined as a “complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral, and physiological elements, by which an individual attempts to deal with a personally significant matter or event.” This means that emotions are there to tell you what is important to you. They are your body’s response to events or stimuli that are activated by signals from the brain.
A TedTalk (linked below) by neuroscientist and psychologist, Lisa Feldman Barrett (2018), explains the purpose of emotions in humans. Lisa presents findings from her 25 years of researching emotions and explains that emotions are our body’s way of making predictions. She says that “your brain does not react to the world. Using past experience, your brain predicts and constructs your experience of the world”. When we feel an emotion, that emotion has been ingrained in us from our past experiences or interactions with people. Based on these emotional impressions from our past, our bodies interpret what it thinks is going to happen, or how it makes sense of our surroundings, and then constructs the emotion it thinks we need.
This leads us to the next aim of this blog post: proposing the notion that emotions are not good or bad. They are neutral. They are simply our body’s interpretation of how it thinks we should respond to external stimuli based on our past experiences. It is how we feel about our emotions that can come across as good or bad. Feelings are our conscious experience of our emotional reactions.
Emotions are not good or bad. They are neutral...It is how we feel about our emotions that can come across as good or bad. Feelings are our conscious experience of our emotional reactions.
For example, if I am walking along a trail and I come across a bear cub and his mother, the emotion I am likely to feel is fear. My brain is registering that the mother bear is going to want to protect her cub from any potential threats, of which I am one. This understanding would likely signal the fear-response in my body. It’s predicting how my body should react. I’ve been taught about the danger of bears in the woods and my body’s emotional response reacts accordingly. My feeling about my fear emotion may be anxiety, excitement, or annoyance, depending on my conscious experience of the fear I’m feeling. However, the fear emotion itself is neutral. It is simply my body’s response to perceiving a dangerous situation.
So, how can this perspective help us when we’re experiencing emotions we perceive as “bad”? Elliot and colleagues (2004) explain in their book, Learning Emotion-Focused Therapy, that emotions tell us what is important in a situation and thus act as a guide to what we need or want; they help us figure out what actions are appropriate. Looking at our emotions with curiosity and non-judgment can help us to unpack what our emotions are telling us. This approach can give us insight into where the emotions may be coming from, and what they mean for us as individuals.
If we let our emotions be felt and experienced in a safe setting, and accept them into our lives without judgment or dismissal, they have the freedom to be felt. This ultimately leads to stronger emotional regulation. When we welcome our emotions, the feelings we have about them become softer and more compassionate. We get to look at them like detectives, trying to understand their origin story and meaning. When we look at our emotions and learn the root of their cause, we learn what our body is telling us.
If you’re seeing a bear in the woods, the fear you’re experiencing will tell you to distance yourself from the bear cub and it’s mother. If you’re experiencing sadness after a relationship ends, this emotion could be telling you that this person held a lot of value in your life, that it’s something your body wants you to remember. Sadness, although may seem “bad”, is neutral. It needs to be felt and accepted for you to move through it and be on the other side.
These are all concepts and skills a professional therapist can help you work through. If you’d like to explore these topics further, click on the link in our bio to visit our website and see if booking a free consultation feels right for you. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to send us a message!
Elliot, R., Watson, J.C., Goldman, R.N., Greenberg, L.S. (2004). Learning emotion-focused therapy: The process-experiential approach to change. American Psychological Association.
Do you have any feedback/questions on this article? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know. I'd love to continue learning with you :)